Filmmaker Shannon Murphy might be best known for her recent work on season three of Killing Eve, including helming a standout episode in which psychopathic assassin Villanelle returns home to Russia to see the family who thought she was dead and comes face to face with a lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage. As seen on Killing Eve, Murphy’s keen understanding of the deeply rooted power of familial bonds, and the way that power can manifest in both humorous and hurtful ways, clearly marks her as a director to watch. That same striking sense of feeling is on full display in her fantastic feature directorial debut, the Australian coming-of-age film Babyteeth.
Babyteeth stars rising star Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects, Little Women) as a terminally ill teen who falls in love with a young drug dealer, much to her overprotective parents’ chagrin. On the surface, the film sounds like it could be an impossibly saccharine tragedy-romance, yet Murphy, together with writer Rita Kalnejas, instead gives us a darkly funny and deeply moving tale of one stubborn young woman’s insistence on experiencing all of the highs and lows that life has to offer in what limited time she has left.
When Milla (Scanlen) first meets Moses (Toby Wallace) on a train platform, they appear to have nothing in common — she’s a uniformed schoolgirl lugging a violin, he’s a wild young man without even a shirt — but the adventurous and energetic ways of Moses immediately inspire and attract Milla. After letting Moses cut off her long strawberry blonde hair with a pair of poodle clippers stolen from Moses’ mother, a fancy dog breeder who won’t even let her wayward son in the house, Milla invites him home to have dinner with her parents.
Needless to say, they don’t approve of Moses, with the seven-year age gap between him and their daughter only the tip of a rather substantial iceberg of anxieties. But this doesn’t stop Milla from falling madly in love with him, despite the fact that Moses generally treats her more like a cute kid sister than a girlfriend.
Aside from the moral quandaries presented by their daughter’s first love, Milla’s parents are wrestling with their own issues. Her father, Henry (a phenomenal Ben Mendelsohn), is a therapist, and one of his patients is her mother, Anna (Essie Davis). Henry is liberal with writing out Anna’s prescriptions, sparing himself and the rest of the family the emotional rollercoaster of Anna’s depression. But when Milla’s illness has a resurgence, Anna decides to give up her medication, desperate to be fully present for what may be her daughter’s final days.
But that’s not the only moderately questionable decision made in light of Milla’s condition. Realizing that his daughter is fully obsessed with Moses, to the point that he has reignited her lust for life, Henry makes a deal with the young man: he’ll write Moses whatever prescriptions he wants if Moses agrees to come live with them and focus on making Milla happy.
Despite Anna’s initial anguish at having to welcome Moses into their home — after all, what kind of responsible parents would do such a thing — the oddball arrangement ends up working to everyone’s benefit. But despite the inner glow that being with Moses has given her, the seriousness of Milla’s illness continues to loom like a dark shadow on the edge of a succession of sunny days.
Babyteeth is a film that thrives on all of its characters’ imperfections. Their deep-seated issues, from Anna’s reliance on her prescriptions to Moses’ bad relationship with his own family, ensure that Babyteeth feels entirely real despite the exceedingly unconventional nature of the living situation at its center.
Scanlen, who has previously stolen scenes from stars like Amy Adams and Saoirse Ronan, shows herself more than capable of carrying a movie on her own, filling Milla with an irrepressible fire that will make you fall in love with her as quickly as she falls in love with Moses. Speaking of which: Toby Wallace, who won Best Young Actor for the role of Moses at the Venice Film Festival, takes what could have been a stereotypical boy from the wrong side of the tracks and ensures that his inherent goodness always shines through. His cheeky smile and natural charisma make it all too easy to understand why Milla would be drawn to him.
As with so many other coming-of-age stories, the characters of the parents are as crucial as the kids when it comes to appreciating Babyteeth. It’s a joy to see Ben Mendelsohn take a break from playing a seemingly endless succession of big-screen baddies to bring such a loving, albeit occasionally misguided, father as Henry to life. He is equally matched by Essie Davis, who ensures that the audience empathizes with all of Anna’s neuroses, even when they threaten to destroy her daughter’s newfound happiness.
The film has a candy-colored palette, rich in lush blues and greens, that oozes summer, which is echoed by the indie-pop music that comprises its soundtrack. These add a layer of light to Babyteeth that, along with the streak of spiky humor that runs through Kalnejais’ script, keeps it from feeling too bleak despite its rather tragic subject matter. The result is a film that never feels emotionally manipulative, but rather, utterly honest. You might shed a tear while watching Babyteeth, but you’ll laugh a great deal as well — and what better representation of young life and love is there?
A stellar feature debut packed with poignant performances, the beautiful, bittersweet Babyteeth announces Shannon Murphy as an up-and-coming director who deserves our full attention.
What do you think? What are your favorite coming-of-age movies? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Babyteeth will be released on demand in the U.S. on June 19, 2020.
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